1973 Tony Nathan Of Woodlawn
(Alabama High School)
Tony Nathan was a reliable professional football player for the Miami Dolphins, completing a nine season career that extended from 1979 through 1987. Versatile and dependable in all phases of the game, he amassed 3543 rushing yards and 3592 on receptions. He was often called upon as the Dolphins clutch third-down receiver and early in his career returned kickoffs and punts and was an All Pro in his rookie season. At Alabama he cobbled together 3362 all-purpose yards running, receiving, and returning the ball, with thirty touchdowns and two National Championship trophies to look back upon. For everyone who recalls Nathan’s abilities, and especially his role as the “go-to guy” when yards were needed, it is difficult to accept that his first high school nickname was “Chicken Big” because both he and his mother did not want exposure to on the field contact.
In the past, neither sports movies nor religious oriented films were box office hits. There were exceptions and Remember The Titans, released in 2000, proved to be a $100 million profit maker. September 15, 2015, October 16, 2015, and January 19, 2016 marked the respective dates of the release of the book, movie, and DVD of “Woodlawn,” the story of Tony Nathan and the early 1970’s Woodlawn High School football teams. Nathan’s own biography, Touchdown Tony; Running With a Purpose, was also published on September 15. While Remember The Titans combined football and a story of integration, Woodlawn’s similar equation added a strong religious theme to the mix, and unlike the former, which many of the true life individuals described as a lot of embellishment augmented with fact, Woodlawn, the movie, is primarily based in fact with some dramatic embellishment
Most of the public knows that in Birmingham, Alabama, racial unrest and resistance to the integration of schools in particular and areas of public assembly and business in general, led to protests and violence through the 1960’s. By the time Tony Nathan entered his freshman year at Birmingham’s Woodlawn High School in 1971, the school had been integrated for a few years but the athletic teams were not. Head Football Coach Tandy Gerelds found it difficult to successfully blend his Caucasian and African-American players into a cohesive unit. In Nathan’s sophomore season of 1972, the team posted a 6-4 record and while playing superbly as a defensive back, Nathan’s mother insisted that her son avoid contact as much as possible and did not allow the coaching staff to play him at running back. Nathan’s own predilection to avoid contact earned him the nickname “Chicken Big” as one of his teammates had already earned the “Chicken Little” moniker. Prior to Tony’s junior season of 1973, the staff made a change from the Wing T to the I - Formation, and Tony became the focal point of the Woodlawn Colonels’ offense. This was an affront to some racists who did not want an African-American to be the star of the team and required an adjustment by opponents and teammates who had never before played with or against those of another race. Woodlawn, the story, tells of the introduction of Christian evangelists Wales Goebel and Henry “Hank” Erwin and the acceptance of Christ by the majority of the ’73 Woodlawn team, with the resultant 8-2 record and team unity a surprise to all.
Nathan’s senior season of ’74, the Colonels again played outstanding
football, ripping off eight consecutive victories. A trip to the state
championship playoffs, as it did in ’73, came down to a game against
rival L. Frazier Banks High School, quarterbacked by future Alabama
great and long-time NFL performer Jeff Rutledge. A record setting crowd
of over 42,000 fans packed Legion Field to see the battle between Nathan
and Rutledge who wound up as Crimson Tide teammates, and the players of
Woodlawn and the Banks Jets. As both squads were undefeated entering the
contest and the Banks team also had a similar religious acceptance
fostered by Erwin, the game, and thus the story, encompass many layers
of interest. The 18-7 Banks victory was the season’s only loss for the
Colonels and many participants on both teams went on to collegiate and
professional football careers. Nathan completed his high school football
career as an All State basketball player and All American football
player, amassing a number of 200+ rushing yard games and one in which he
posted more than 400 all-purpose yards.
As one of Alabama’s all-time best high school football players, and one who had such a positive influence on the social fabric of the school and city during a turbulent period of time in its history, Tony stated, “I don’t have much memorabilia from when I played high school ball.” That statement motivated a friend (Bobby Mallozzi) of HELMET HUT to present Tony with an authentic reproduction of his Woodlawn 1973 Vegas gold and green helmet, complete with Dungard mask. Woodlawn wore this design during Tony’s first years on the team, until changing to a model that featured a single green center stripe with player identification numerals on both sides for his senior season. As much as the helmet is a reminder of one player’s outstanding high school career, it is also a reminder of the role a particular player and his high school team played in soothing animosities during a difficult time in Birmingham’s history.